LinkedIn has made some interesting and exciting moves in the past year or two. Its acquisitions and new features demonstrate its attempt to encourage more frequent use, particularly in the younger sector. It lowered the age limit for new users, and introduced applications such as University Pages, which help students find the right fit for their college experience.
The problem is, younger members of the workforce have been conditioned since middle school to separate their social lives and their professional lives, and the barriers to participation on LinkedIn seem daunting. Obviously, the website wants its 364,000,000+ users to be active, and research has shown that younger people are those most likely to use social media for longer periods of time. But it LinkedIn is still having trouble getting these users to integrate the service into their daily lives, because of user experience issues and its failure to bridge their social and professional tendencies.
Even the most reckless users of social media are still somewhat conscious of how they present themselves in a professional context – barring a few exceptions. The scare-tactic school assemblies from their youth may not prevent embarrassing Facebook and Twitter gaffes, but LinkedIn is a step towards putting yourself out there for companies to see: actively trying to get noticed means more caution in everything you do. As a result, the platform feels somewhat sterile and uncomfortable, with every step a potential misstep. In this professional setting, most users present themselves as they would in a job interview, and the end result is very impersonal.
Cautiousness gives rise to hesitation, hindering experimentation and exploration, which are cornerstones of success for other social media platforms. With LinkedIn, users follow what they see as established guidelines, and treat it very conservatively. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, every action feels like it has an agenda behind it. Posts, articles, and endorsements feel like obligations for response or reciprocation, and beyond that people are either unwilling or uninterested in being active.
Even adding connections feels a little unnatural. Because it’s not a universally used platform amongst this younger cohort, users may feel more hesitant to send a request to someone they only somewhat know. And how should they approach these requests in the first place? How selective should they be – take the Hail Mary approach and just spray requests all over the place, or is selectivity more important? All that confusion is for contacting people they do know. And because the website is not part of daily conversation amongst their peers, the rules are less well-known, with protocols left up to individual users.
Another source of annoyance is the slew of notifications and updates – when someone visits your profile, when someone posts an article, when someone changes the smallest detail about their profile. It doesn’t want users to check out a friend or a prospective connection without forced interaction, which discourages them from exploring other users’ pages. It doesn’t allow users to dip a toe in – they have to dive off the deep end. An argument can be made that such a push towards extroversion may be useful in some areas of business, but that’s little comfort to those who might be less confident about the etiquette of the platform, or how they’ll be received in this context.
What LinkedIn needs is low-stakes participation. People need to be able to like a status or write a post or update their profile without feeling as though that action is going to be plastered all over the website. Uploads and profile changes shouldn’t automatically make it to the newsfeed, quizzes shouldn’t post scores, and posts shouldn’t automatically notify every single person connected to the author. The thing is, it’s actually possible to remove some of these features, if the user wants to go through and manually change every little setting. Even then, peace of mind is not complete. But few people even bother to find out, the effort and the annoyance not worth it to these more casual users.
It’s understandable that LinkedIn wants to make the main focus visiting other people’s pages, taking a bit of a bigger role to encourage interaction. But it feels like a seventh grade dance, with LinkedIn acting as the pushy chaperone forcing couples together. It didn’t help then, and it doesn’t help now. People don’t want to be squeezed together, so LinkedIn needs to shift its focus to creating the conditions conducive to making each party want to seek out the other.
On top of the perils of unwanted social interaction, LinkedIn is a website where many younger users are unsure if they really belong. As one user put it, “We have to get it, so we got it.” Even if they’re working, not everyone feels “professional” enough to warrant hanging out that sort of platform. Other social media sites are designed for users to show off and feel good: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter are there to post happy times and achievements, the parts of life people naturally want to share. But for younger people, LinkedIn is just a demonstration of how little they’ve done, and how to stretch that out as much as possible. It feels like it can hurt more than help – most people don’t want to talk about their achievements and experience until they’ve actually done a lot with their career, but by that point they probably won’t really need or want LinkedIn anyway.
This sort of shame discourages younger users from interacting with the most useful people on LinkedIn: each other. It’s a highly valuable opportunity, which is squandered because the site’s culture conditions them to look up for help rather than to those on their own level. Sharing resources, pooling talent, looking for other talented and creative people in their field – this is where younger users could benefit from LinkedIn the most. This kind of horizontal interaction is what could give these new entrants to the workforce the confidence they need to utilize the platform. Once they establish themselves on the site, they can move on to vertical interaction: reaching out to potential employers, mentors, or contacts in higher levels of their field.
This article isn’t meant to be negative; instead, its intent is to shine a light on some of these problems so they can be addressed. My follow-up piece focuses on actionable advice, so that the platform can better connect with younger users: